The need for timely and accurate communication is not confined to the relative quiet of boardrooms, courtrooms, or hospital wards. However, the presence of interpreters and translators in extraordinary settings, such as war zones, is certainly not a new phenomenon in a world that continues with a long history of transnational relations that is comprised of both conflict and cooperation. The impact of language is evident in the remnants of eras that are long past as well as current affairs.
While it may seem fitting to lay to rest the wars of the 20th century, the recent death of United States Army interpreter and translator Henry A. Prunier, shows that conflicts of great magnitude consist of intricately weaved details that influence global affairs well beyond the official time frame of the actual war. Prunier was a member of a small mission that was dropped with parachutes into northern Vietnam near the end of World War II to instruct an elite force of Vietnamese guerillas on the use of modern American weapons. The U.S. government was seeking the support of the Vietnamese fighters, known as the “Viet Minh”, as both nations struggled against the Japanese forces that had encroached upon Indochina. Unsurprisingly, the independence-hungry Viet Minh, under the leadership of Ho Chi Minh—who would of course be influential years later in the Vietnamese struggle against the U.S., openly welcomed the lessons in advanced weaponry from Prunier and his six colleagues.
Prunier, who died of congestive heart failure in May 2013 at the age of ninety-one years, was the last living member of a mission that, according to the New York Times, is largely considered a “golden moment of cooperation” between the Vietnamese and the U.S. Prunier’s linguistic skills were identified after he self-enlisted in the Army and he was consequently enrolled by the U.S. military into the University of California for the specific purpose of studying Vietnamese. It was during his time as a college student that Prunier was approached to join the two-month-long mission that was code-named “Deer Team.”
The need for wartime interpreters is an ongoing concern today and administrations have also employed the services of people from opposing nativities to assist with communication. Afghanistan is of particular interest in this regard, as further complications have arisen for Afghani interpreters during a period in which conflict is dissipating. As troops are withdrawn from Afghanistan, Afghani interpreters face an overloaded U.S. immigration department that struggles to accommodate those people who previously assisted the U.S. military but who are now stranded, as the American pullout leaves them without work and exposed to the attacks of resentful Taliban forces. One interpreter has survived three Taliban attacks, one of which involved a rocket striking a truck that he was traveling in.
The estimated total number of Afghani interpreters is 8,000 and anecdotal reports suggest that several are killed each month for their prior work. Family members have also been targeted, with two brothers of one interpreter killed in an attack. One Afghani was employed for ten years as a combat interpreter for the coalition forces and was involved in 300 missions during that time — he was recruited at the age of sixteen years after he approached Special Forces troops with an ability to speak English. In the Afghani conflict, combat interpreters were required to perform tasks such as the translation of battle strategies to Afghani soldiers and participation in meetings with village elders.
While fluent communication can be a preventive factor in cases of conflict, it has also proven to be essential in the midst of aggression between warring parties. Time has also shown that language interpretation and translation yields both benefits and grave costs in the context of war. Regardless of outcomes though, the importance of clear and accurate communication, and the languages that facilitate this, is prevalent in all kinds of circumstances.